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Composed Salad

ALICE WATERS WAS RIGHT ABOUT THIS DISH

Acomposed salad sounds like the perfect first course or lunch entrée. These fancy salads are a mainstay on restaurant menus because they are so much fun to eat. Each bite is a bit different from the last one.
Unfortunately, most composed salads don’t work at home. There are just too many individual components to prepare. But there is an exception—a salad of tender greens topped with warm rounds of goat cheese that have been dusted with crisp crumbs.

The popularity of this combination can be traced to Alice Waters and her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. Back in the early 1970s, Waters devised a menu of French-inspired dishes that showcased local Bay Area ingredients, including goat cheese. Many of the most important food trends of the past 40 years started in her restaurant kitchen.

With the help of legendary New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, who wrote about this dish in 1983, baked goat cheese salad (also known as warm goat cheese salad) became a mainstay on restaurants menus across the country. And this dish has remained popular ever since for good reason. The crumb coating provides textural contrast to the soft cheese, while the acidity of vinaigrette keeps the richness in check. (This is a first course, after all.)

Goat cheese can be fairly pungent so this dish works best with salad greens that have some personality. A mix of greens (such as mesclun) provides some of the variety one expects from a composed salad. And for those with the time and inclination, the salad can be further embellished with fruit, nuts, or even a slice or two of prosciutto. This is California cuisine at its best.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS

The Answer Is the Oven

Restaurant cooks often pan-fry the goat cheese in this dish, which makes sense when you’re cooking the cheese to order—and when you have multiple cooks on the line to handle the orders coming in. But at home, you’re on your own, so turning multiple delicate disks of cheese in a skillet of hot oil without marring their browned crust becomes impractical. What works? Baking.

The Right Crumb

Baking the goat cheese rounds requires a durable breading to create a truly crisp crust. Melba toast, one of the sturdiest crackers around, is ideal once pulverized into sandy crumbs. You might think they’d be too dry, but brushing the crumb-coated rounds with olive oil gives the crumbs plenty of richness.

Build Flavor

The combination of herbs and goat cheese is a natural, so before coating the rounds in the crumb mixture, roll the cheese in chopped fresh thyme and chives. Dunking the herb-coated rounds in beaten egg helps the crumbs adhere, but eggs alone don’t do much for flavor. Stirring a little mustard into the egg adds a pleasant bite.

Freeze, Please

Baking is easier than frying, but it does take a long time for the crust to brown. In fact, it takes so long that the cheese can melt into an unappealing puddle. In order to give the crust enough time to brown, freeze the cheese for 30 minutes before baking.

Cool and Serve

The baked goat cheese rounds will be too hot to serve right out of the oven. Let them cool for a few minutes while you toss together the salad. There’s plenty of richness in this salad from the cheese, so when dressing the greens, remember that a little vinaigrette goes a long way.

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Herbed goat cheese rounds are dipped in a mustardy wash and then rolled in Melba crumbs.

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Salad with Herbed Baked Goat Cheese

SERVES 6

RECIPE DETAILS

Timeline

  • 15 minutes to coat goat cheese
  • 30 minutes to freeze goat cheese (preheat oven and make dressing while cheese is chilling)
  • 10 minutes to bake and cool goat cheese (dress salad greens while cheese is cooling)

Essential Tools

  • Food processor to grind Melba toasts
  • Kitchen twine or dental floss to cut goat cheese

Substitutions & Variations

  • Here are two simple ideas for dressing up this salad:
  • Dried Cherries, Walnuts, and Apples: Plump 1 cup dried cherries in ½ cup hot water for 10 minutes; drain. Divide cherries; 2 Granny Smith apples, sliced ⅛ inch thick, and ½ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped, among individual plates. Use cider vinegar in dressing.
  • Grapes, pine Nuts, and prosciutto: Divide 1¼ cups red seedless grapes, halved, ½ cup toasted pine nuts, and 6 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto among individual plates. Use balsamic vinegar in dressing.

Hearty salad greens, such as a mix of arugula and frisée, work best here.

  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon minced shallot
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Pepper
  • 14   ounces (14 cups) mixed hearty salad greens
  • 1 recipe Herbed Baked Goat cheese (recipe follows)
  1. Combine vinegar, mustard, shallot, and salt in small bowl. Whisking constantly, drizzle in oil; season with pepper to taste.
  2. Place greens in large bowl, drizzle vinaigrette over, and toss to coat. Divide greens among individual plates; place 2 rounds warm goat cheese on each salad. Serve immediately.

HERBED BAKED GOAT CHEESE MAKES 12 ROUNDS

The baked goat cheese should be served warm.

  • 3 ounces white Melba toasts (2 cups)
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
  • 12   ounces firm goat cheese
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  1. Process Melba toasts in a food processor to fine even crumbs, about 1½ minutes; transfer crumbs to medium bowl and stir in pepper. Whisk eggs and mustard in second medium bowl until combined. Combine thyme and chives in small bowl.
  2. Using kitchen twine or dental floss, divide cheese into 12 even pieces. Roll each piece into ball; roll each ball in herbs to coat lightly. Transfer 6 pieces to egg mixture, turn each piece to coat; transfer to Melba crumbs and turn each piece to coat, pressing crumbs into cheese. Flatten each ball into disk about 1½ inches wide and 1 inch thick and set on baking sheet. Repeat process with remaining 6 pieces cheese. Freeze cheese until firm, about 30 minutes. (Cheese may be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and frozen for 1 week.) Adjust oven rack to top position; heat oven to 475 degrees.
  3. Remove cheese from freezer and brush tops and sides evenly with oil. Bake until crumbs are golden brown and cheese is slightly soft, 7 to 9 minutes (or 9 to 12 minutes if cheese is completely frozen). Using thin metal spatula, transfer cheese to paper towel–lined plate and let cool 3 minutes before serving.

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